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Urban Violence

Chicago Criminals’ Favorite Gunmakers: A Visual Ranking

Police data reveals that drug money is helping the city’s gang members buy more firepower, while decades-old ‘Saturday Night Specials’ continue to claim victims.

By early December of last year, the Chicago Police Department had confiscated 6,521 illegal guns in 2015. That total meant the department was seizing about 19 guns a day — or about one gun every 74 minutes. For the city’s police department, the remarkable haul wasn’t unusual. In 2014, it recovered 6,429. In 2013, it seized 6,815.

Indeed, officers in Chicago recover more guns than their counterparts in New York and Los Angeles — two cities with larger populations — combined. In 2012, Los Angeles police seized 122 illegal guns for every 100,000 residents, while New York cops confiscated 39. In Chicago, the rate was 277.

Despite having some of the toughest gun regulations of any city in the country, Chicago continues to record thousands of shootings per year. As President Obama has pointed out, that isn’t a failing of the city’s gun laws. The problem is that most of the guns used in crimes in Chicago come from neighboring states with lax gun laws. A study released last year by the city found that almost 60 percent of firearms recovered at Chicago crime scenes were first bought in states that do not require background checks for Internet or gun show sales, like neighboring Indiana and Wisconsin. Of the remaining crime guns, nearly half were purchased at three gun shops just outside the city.

Research by the Chicago police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives paints a detailed picture of how crime guns flow into the city. But less has been known about what kinds of firearms, specifically, are favored by the city’s criminals. In an effort to learn more, The Trace filed an information request with the CPD’s Research and Development Division, asking for the make, model, and caliber of all the crime guns collected in Chicago in 2014.

The CPD data includes guns used in violent crimes and murders, as well as guns confiscated during traffic stops. For our analysis, we excluded the 17 firearms collected by airport law enforcement, since those might not have involved illegal possession. The total also eliminates guns associated with a suicide or firearms turned into police through gun buybacks or other means. Guns turned in by the public accounted for more than 2,000 of the firearms recovered in 2014. In all, the CPD inventoried 4,505 guns in 2014 that were associated with criminal incidents — or events in which an officer determined that a crime had taken place. 

Narrowing the focus to groupings of guns by manufacturer and caliber produces the following popularity index of Chicago crime guns:

(illustration: Joel Arbaje for The Trace)

From that hierarchy, a few patterns emerge. The city’s criminals, for instance, prefer semiautomatic pistols to revolvers and generally seek out cheap junk guns. What’s also notable is the type of gun that doesn’t appear among the top models seized. In 2014, Chicago police recovered only three assault weapons associated with criminal incidents. “Often there’s a misimpression about the importance of assault guns and assault weapons, and it’s important to point out how rare that is,” says Phillip Cook, an economist at Duke University who studies underground gun markets. “The guns being used in Chicago for crime and murder are by and large very ordinary pistols.”

Smith & Wesson: Chicago’s top crime gun manufacturer

In 2000, Smith & Wesson struck a “historic” deal with the Clinton Administration, agreeing to a stringent set of safety and distribution standards. For instance, the company would sell its products only to dealers who took steps to restrict the sale of guns to criminals. The agreement reportedly helped settle several civil suits brought against Smith & Wesson by state and federal agencies.

But the deal put the company in dire straits. An apoplectic National Rifle Association called for a boycott, and the company’s sales declined by up to 60% before the end of 2000 compared to 1999. Its British owner was forced to sell the company, but it quickly regained its footing, thank in part to the Bush Administration — which declined to enforce the Clinton-era deal and awarded Smith & Wesson several federal contracts. 

Nearly two decades after its rocky safety initiative, Smith & Wesson is Chicago’s leading producer of crime guns. The company holds four spots among the 20 guns most frequently recovered by police — more than any other brand — and is the most popular manufacturer overall, with 624 total guns seized in 2014. It’s worth pointing out that Smith & Wesson is the country’s largest firearm manufacturer, which may account for the prevalence of its products among the city’s crime guns. 

Meanwhile, the company has again come under government scrutiny. Last month, New York City’s public advocate filed a letter saying the Securities and Exchange Commission should investigate whether Smith & Wesson misrepresented or omitted information about how often its firearms are used in crimes. (Smith & Wesson could not be reached for comment.) 

9MM handguns are the new crime gun of choice

Between 80 to 85 percent of the city’s homicides are committed with a gun. Of those murders, a “preponderance” are carried out by gang members, according to a 2015 report co-authored by Duke’s Phillip Cook. 

Friends comfort each other at a Chicago memorial service for a gun violence victim in 2014. (Getty Images/Scott Olson)

The weapons of choice for gangs today are 9MM semiautomatic handguns, followed by .40 caliber and .45 caliber semiautomatics, says Thomas Ahern, an ATF senior agent based in Chicago. It makes sense then that those calibers account for about half of the crime guns recovered by police.

Until the 1980s, .38-caliber revolvers were the most popular crime guns, according to Cook. These revolvers were more reliable and cheaper than semiautomatic pistols of the era. But that changed as manufacturers began producing semiautomatics that were just as efficient and affordable as revolvers. What makes semiautomatics particularly appealing to gang members is that they generally have a higher capacity than revolvers, meaning they can fire more shots before it’s necessary to reload.

Drug money is allowing gang members to buy better guns

Glock is one of the most name-dropped brands in Jay-Z’s lyrics, and the Austrian firearm manufacturer has received prominent shout-outs from Wu-Tang Clan and 50 Cent, among other hip-hop artists. If you assume the references to be instances of art following illegal commerce, you might imagine that Glocks are practically littering inner-city streets. But that’s not the case. Given their high cost — the retail price for a Glock .45 or 9MM runs between $515 to $595 at one Chicago-area dealer — Glocks have typically remained out of reach for most gang members and the straw purchasers who often supply them.

“A lot of gang members and criminals are settling for what they can get their hands on and afford,” says Duke’s Phillip Cook. But just because gang members can’t afford a Glock, that doesn’t mean they don’t want one. “Glock would probably be the weapon of choice for most of the gangs,” says the ATF’s Thomas Ahern. “They view Glocks as top of the line.”

In recent years, Ahern says he has seen a shift in the quality of guns used by Chicago gangs. Gangs usually purchase cheap guns and dispose of them once they’ve been used in a crime, so they can avoid getting caught with the weapon down the line. But Ahern has noticed that an influx of cash from the narcotics trade has allowed some gang members to purchase higher-quality guns like Glocks, which they generally hold onto.

Hi-Points are dangerously cheap

Hi-Point Firearms, based in Mansfield, Ohio, produces low-cost semiautomatic handguns and carbines. The three Hi-Point models among Chicago’s top crime guns are also among the cheapest by retail value, with prices ranging from $162 to $285. The company’s focus on the affordability of its products has drawn the gunmaker unwanted attention. In 2005, Beemiller Inc., Hi-Point’s parent company, and MKS Supply, the company’s sole distributor, were sued for negligence. The suit alleges that Beemiller and MKS intentionally supplied handguns to irresponsible dealers, because they stood to profit from sales to criminals. 

The case, Williams v. Beemiller, was brought by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence on behalf of Daniel Williams, a 17-year-old who was mistaken for a gang member in New York and shot playing basketball. The Brady Center alleges the 9mm Hi- Point used to shoot Williams was purchased at a gun show along with 86 other guns in a single sale to an obvious straw purchaser. The defendants each moved to dismiss the suit under the Protection of the Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun manufacturers and dealers from negligence suits, but after a judge tossed the case out, an appeals court reinstated the lawsuit. Hi-Point attorney Scott Allan disagreed with the ruling, telling the Associated Press that Hi-Point did not violate any statute. The case remains in New York court.

Chicago police display some of the thousands of firearms the department seized in 2014. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

A popular South American gunmaker has cracked the U.S. criminal market

In the 1990s, Bersa became the official firearms supplier for Argentina’s armed forces and federal police. Since then, the manufacturer, which focuses on producing accurate handguns at reasonable prices, has grown increasingly popular in Central and South America. The company’s presence among Chicago’s top crime guns would seem to indicate that these guns are beginning to draw more attention in the U.S.  

The “Saturday Night Special” is still kicking

In the 1980s, a group of gun manufacturers set up shop outside Los Angeles, California. These companies, which included Raven Arms and Lorcin Engineering, were collectively dubbed the “Ring of Fire,” as they became notorious for producing simple, cheap handguns commonly known as “Saturday Night Specials.” Even though these junk guns had a tendency to misfire or malfunction, production by Ring of Fire companies grew exponentially, and by 1990, they churned out one-third of all handguns in the U.S. A trace report by the ATF in the 1990s found that Saturday Night Specials like the ones produced by Raven and Lorcin were 3.4 times more likely to be used in crimes than other guns.

Though both companies have been out of business for decades, the appearance of the Lorcin .380 and Raven .25 among Chicago’s most seized guns speaks to the enduring appeal of the Saturday Night Special. Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, says that many black market gun customers are looking for a weapon that even the least skilled person can operate. These firearms fit the bill.

Older guns are also easier to buy for cheap on the black market, adding to their attraction, especially for younger gang members. Cook’s research has shown that crime guns purchased by gang members tend to be an average of 12.6 years old.

Guns are durable goods, and once a lax law or untoward seller allows a gun to enter the black market, it will often stay in circulation for decades. “A gun manufactured in 1984 will kill you just as dead as a new one,” says Pollack.

[Top photo: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green]